A co-operative is an organisation that conducts economic activity for the benefit of its members. It is owned on an egalitarian basis by these members, who are admitted on a non-dicriminatory basis. The co-operative trades to provide goods and services, and the profit it generates may be distributed among its members as a dividend proportional to the amount the member uses the co-op's services.
Working capital is collected by members buying shares, which may bear interst up to normal market rates, but do not appreciate in value. Voting - for instance to elect the board of management - is democratic - i.e. one member, one vote.
Co-operatives serve some 800 milion people worldwide and are represented by the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) - http://www.ica.coop. Every 15 years or so the ICA updates the co-operative principles.
Co-operatives are present throughout the economy, but are strongest in the fields of agriculture and fishery, retailing (particularly food), housing and finance. There are also many workers' co-operatives, transport co-operatives, cultural co-operatives, co-operatives of enterprisdes and so on. Business and employment co-operatives provide mutual support for start-up entrepreneurs. Secondary co-operatives are co-operatives of other co-operatives.